Sacred Moves Uptown

Exploring the special considerations it takes to build spiritual centers in the middle of the urban sprawl.

02/01/2016 By Timothy Eckersley

symbolism on the exterior
Even though some new churches may have more modest ambitions than traditional churches—in that they do not attempt to present themselves as major markers in their neighborhoods—they do need to distinguish themselves architecturally. The application of symbolism on the exterior is a matter for individual churches, but the use of a cross is in itself a transforming addition to a facade.

Traditional churches present entirely closed exteriors—in keeping with the idea of acting as welcoming, contemporary spaces, newer designs allow the option of opening up the sanctuary with direct connections from the inside to the outside.

flexible vs. sacred spaces
Congregations, in one respect, are no different from other groups that commission new buildings. There is a common desire to make the best use of their real estate investment. As the sanctuary can go underused during

the week, it is frequently seen as a multipurpose hall that can serve gatherings aside from worship services alone. It can host annual dinners and dances, meetings and seminars, and theatrical and musical performances. Sometimes room dividers are introduced to create smaller spaces for classrooms or after-service get-togethers.

To allow this flexibility, flat floors and movable seats have to be used, rather than raked fixed seating. But building in flexibility comes with its own disadvantages. Movable seats and partitions give the space a temporary feel that can dilute the meditative experience. In addition, movable seating is less efficient than pews in terms of providing the greatest density of seating. While pews can be seen as old-fashioned, in one way they are more adaptable than seats: by accommodating people of different sizes and making it easier to squeeze in.

Movable seats have to be stackable, which puts limits on their appearance, and the storage of the seats outside the sanctuary consumes a large floor area. To maximize flexibility, this storage should be directly accessible from the sanctuary and can therefore occupy valuable floor space on the main level of the building.

Another significant disadvantage to the flexibility approach is that sight lines in a flat-floored room are inferior to those with a raked floor. For a flat floor the dais has to be raised higher, which mitigates the idea of a close relationship between the congregation and the clergy. A high dais also creates awkward sight lines for those in the front rows.
On the other hand, the simple lines created by pews reinforce the architecture and set a tone of material simplicity that can be used throughout the furnishings and finishes within the room.

ancillary functions
When building new churches, congregations often want a lot more than a sanctuary. The aim is to create a home away from home that caters for the whole family. This is a critical way in which congregations attract new members, particularly younger generations and families.

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